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Wine: Drinking on a diet: a slimline tonic?

We drink wine for enjoyment, not with the aim of losing weight
THE "MOMENT on the lips" mantra usually springs to mind in the middle of a mouthful of something horribly creamy or chocolatey. It never struck me that the "lifetime on the hips" pay-off might apply to wine. But in the light of Atkins, South Beach and now the GI (Glycaemic Index) diet, wine too seems to be cashing in on the Bridget Jones market. Weight Watchers launched its acceptable if unexciting Riesling and ensuing low-calorie range a couple of years ago (2003/4 Riesling, pounds 3.99 Asda). This month, California's Brown-Forman brings us Chardonnay One.4 and a Merlot One.6, which sell on their low carb content, despite a relatively high 13.5 per cent alcohol. I wouldn't recommend them.

Consume more calories than you expend and you put on weight. With nine calories per gram, fat contains more than twice as many as carbohydrates and proteins. The good news is that there is no fat in wine. The less good news is that alcohol is the next most fattening substance with seven calories per gram. It gets worse. Wine also contains other carbohydrates, basically grape sugar. This is fermented into alcohol in a dry wine, while sweet wines like sauternes, port and sweet sherry retain sugar by the sackful. Calories come mainly from the alcohol and sugar in wine. They provide energy but no vitamins, minerals or fibre. Because of the rapid rise and fall in blood-sugar levels, drinking wine makes you hungry.

You can't take the calories out of wine without removing the flavour any more than you can take the marbling out of a steak. Where Weight Watchers et al score is in exploiting the wide variation in calories from one wine style to another. Port and sweet sherry, fortified with brandy and sugar, contain the greatest number of calories. At the opposite pole, a light German riesling at 80 calories per glass (whether or not it's Weight Watchers' riesling) is roughly equal to a slice of brown bread. In between, your average glass of dry white, red or even champagne, with 100-odd calories, compares with the calories of a skinless chicken breast.

So wine needn't be a no-go area for the diet-conscious. In moderation it even has its place in Atkins and the Glycaemic Index (GI). Better still, recent research from Colorado State University actually suggests that red wine doesn't contribute to weight gain and that there are no grounds for recommending reduced alcohol consumption to maintain or reduce body weight. Equally significantly, an obesity study into the relationship between alcohol and weight gain reported in January's `Alcohol in Moderation Digest' concluded that of the 50,000 women studied, those who gained least weight over a period of eight years were the moderate consumers of alcohol.

Nobody in their right mind will drink wine to lose weight, though, just as no one drinks wine just for its well-researched cardiovascular benefits. We drink it because it goes with enjoying company, relaxing and good eating. Follow a few basic commonsense principles and you don't have to sip gimmicky brands aimed at dieters. As a general rule, drink wines which are lower in alcohol and drier, for instance German riesling (lower in alcohol than New Zealand riesling), dry sparkling wines and dry French and Italian whites and reds in preference to sweet, fortified wines and more alcoholic wines. Drink from a smaller glass and with a meal. Follow the simple Rose Diet Plan: eat and drink less and exercise more.